Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 11, 2017
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Tall ship tales

Orcas, eagles and bears in BC's Broughton Archipelago

Long ago, before the arrival of English settlers, the Pacific coast of southern British Columbia teemed with fantastic, wonderful forms of life. Along the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the mainland, these creatures flourished in the overlapping zones of land and sea, at home in either environment.

As a result, many possessed an almost magical ability to transform themselves and were regarded by the region’s indigenous peoples as “shape-shifters” able to fly, climb or swim at will. This was not considered unusual: as local legends point out, no one knew what the killer whales in the Strait became when they submerged and disappeared from view.

Today, this world of chimerical beings remains largely intact in the remote fjords and island chains at the Strait of Georgia’s northern end — a region accessible only by boat and seaplane from the Vancouver Island towns of Port McNeill and Port Hardy, 500 kilometres north of Victoria.

Here, in the Broughton Archipelago, the Strait narrows to a jigsaw puzzle of islands scattered across a snaking carpet of inlets and channels. Most of the islands are ruggedly beautiful and even mountainous, with sheer slopes that fall to the water. All are covered with the temperate rainforests Canada’s West Coast is famous for, although a few patches are missing, courtesy of local logging companies.

Overwhelmingly, though, the Broughton remains a wild country full of old ways and leaping salmon, a timeless place where legends and apparitions still come to life — one reason to watch closely when a beached log rolls over to wave its flippers.

With the gateway town of Port Hardy just an hour by air from Vancouver, the region’s spectacular wildlife in all its original abundance is not entirely out of reach. Orcas, whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, otters, martens, bears, deer and wolves, along with a myriad other species of mammals, birds and marine life, all thrive in the recesses of the Broughton, where even a day blanketed by fog resounds with the calls and splashes of nearby animals.

Any real entry into this watery wilderness has to be by boat; the more versatile and manoeuvrable, the better. If you don’t have access to a yacht or any experience of tough sea kayaking/camping trips, a number of Vancouver Island eco-adventure companies are now offering sailing tours to places through which no cruise ship will ever lumber.

 

Three Sails to the Wind

One of the best is the internationally acclaimed Maple Leaf Adventures, owned by Kevin Smith. For the past two decades, the company’s 100-year-old classic schooner, a 28-metre-long, three-masted tall ship named the Maple Leaf, has travelled to the loneliest parts of BC’s coastline. Operated by a four-person crew, including a naturalist and a gourmet chef, and with room for up to eight guests at a time, the Maple Leaf conducts highly popular natural and cultural history tours of the remote Pacific coast from spring to fall every year.

Along with the Broughton Archipelago, itineraries include tours of the Southern Gulf Islands near Victoria; the famous Great Bear Rainforest north of the Strait of Georgia, Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), and the Alaska Panhandle. In 2009, seven different packages to these locales are scheduled from early April until late October (August is reserved for the Maple Leaf’s traditional training of teenaged sea cadets).

On the five-night Whales and Totems of the Rainforest sailing, the Maple Leaf leaves Port McNeill on Vancouver Island to head into the Broughton Archipelago in early October, perfect timing to see the ocean mammals that congregate to feed on the seasonal salmon runs.

Commissioned by a prominent Vancouver businessman back in 1904, the Maple Leaf has been lovingly refurbished since and still retains a sense of period elegance. The costliest pleasure boat of its time, it is handcrafted from local Douglas fir and cedar, with mahogany trim, polished brass fittings, and sweeping lines that sit it gracefully in the water.

These days it is also outfitted with the latest in navigational gear and satellite technology. According to its crew, it is tremendously quick and a joy to sail in the right wind. Unfortunately, though we raised the three enormous sails twice on our journey (quite a sight), we never caught much more than the stiff breezes sufficient for a few knots of speed, and relied instead on the engines in the channels of the archipelago.

 

Cosy Quarters

Landlubbers are sometimes known to regard ship life as cramped or inconvenient: neither adjective fits the comfortable Maple Leaf, but do bear in mind that this is not the place to look for the amenities of a large cruise line. Privacy is as essentially nonexistent as it is irrelevant, given that you’ll spend all your time on deck and be happily outside whale watching in all kinds of weather (remember to prepare — horizontal rain off a wind with teeth will always make yours chatter). Daily excursions on land are offered, and sea kayaks for your use kept on board, along with motorized Polaris inflatable boats for group jaunts and close-up views of marine life.

Apart from the Captain’s wheelhouse, all indoor space is below deck. There is a cosy dining area (with an excellent natural history library) attached to a small chef’s galley, along with sleeping quarters for eight with two common toilets and showers. The sleeping quarters, or cabin, resemble nothing so much as very spacious, luxuriously appointed 1930s train compartments. Comfortable, low-slung berths with ample storage space are separated by heavy pull-curtains. Given the toll of proximity, earplugs are provided. If you think you need other sleep aids, bring them, but don’t fret — the busy days and rocking motion of the waves do wonders for insomnia.

Rotating crews operate the Maple Leaf on successive trips. The ship’s owner, Kevin Smith, often captains tours, but on our expedition the captain was a genteel Australian, Stephen Anstee, who had once sailed a nine-metre sailboat across the Pacific with his wife, Heidi Krajewsky, the trained naturalist onboard.

Heidi was a font of knowledge about the species that inhabit the coast, with a gift for making laypeople enthusiastic about squishy things (Mollusks! Sea cucumbers! Banana slugs!). Days on deck were an open-air classroom where we discussed the controversial effects of fish farms or learned that the carbon monoxide released by a head of kelp can kill a mouse. Predictably, every guest from a landlocked area made a point of steering the boat.

The crew was rounded out by deckhand and go-to guy Spence Partlo and the ship’s cook, Andrew Siebert, the former chef of entertainment magnate Merv Griffin. While Andrew’s meticulously presented haute cuisine would earn him accolades in any prestigious restaurant, the fact that he prepared it alone in a lurching, tiny kitchen the size of a physician’s desk was downright astonishing. Dinner every night was punctuated by squeals of delight washed down with reserve wine.

 

Call of the Wild

During our six days at sea we circumnavigated Gilford Island, one of the largest in the archipelago. The voyage involved whale-watching in the open sounds, close-up visits to seal “haul outs” on rocks in the channels using the Polaris inflatables (also used to investigate tidal zones and aboriginal pictographs), along with a wealth of other activities and a week’s worth of beautiful nightly anchorages under the stars.

Land excursions included shore trips on different islands, interpretative hikes in the rainforest, home visits with long-time local characters (a hermit who was a founding member of Greenpeace; a logger running an eccentric museum), as well as a pilgrimage to the abandoned aboriginal village of Mamalilaculla, famous for its fallen totems.

At one of our moorages, we wandered through the dry parts of a wide estuary filled with bald eagles, gulls, and the carcasses of salmon that had died en route to their fresh-water spawning grounds. Returning the next morning, we stumbled onto two gambolling young black bears; we watched leisurely, standing only metres away.

Another estuary we visited on the mainland fell back to shoals dotted with wolf prints, razor sharp mountains, and a large grizzly meadow with more fresh bear scrapes (the holes grizzlies dig to obtain foodstuffs) than I’d ever seen — a fact that made me perfectly happy the grizzlies were absent.

 

The Way to Alert Bay

As for wildlife watching overall, my scrawled notes say it best. Day One: saw seven-member killer whale pod with calf close-up, numerous Dall and black-fronted porpoises, and 40 harbour seals. Day Two: saw 60 Stellar’s sea lions and the same killer whale pod, this time performing breaches, rollovers and “spy hops” (the aquatic equivalent of a bear standing on its hind legs to look around). Day Three: used the inflatable boats to visit a haul out of 50 sea lions; later saw dozens of eagles, two black bears, and a contingent of humpback whales.

And so it went, right up to the trip’s end, when we watched up to 200 white-sided dolphins playing as close as two metres away in the wake of the ship (they turn and leap on their sides to see you better). Returning to Port McNeill, we ran into six humpbacks and sighted a new killer whale pod we heard “talking” to each other with the help of a hydrophone, an underwater microphone. The land and air also brought us constant daily companions, including thousands of seabirds (we saw 48 species of birds in all).

Approaching Port McNeill, we passed Cormorant Island and the town of Alert Bay, the largest local settlement of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations people. At one time, the Kwakwaka’wakw were spread out over the Broughton Archipelago in such numbers that the region had one of the highest population densities in pre-contact North America.

Today, Alert Bay’s U’Mista Cultural Centre contains a must-see, world-famous collection of First Nations artifacts — seagoing canoes, ceremonial masks, totemic objects, everyday clothing and traditional crafts — and it was here that I learned what killer whales become when they dive.

The cultures along the Strait of Georgia have always revered and celebrated the beings around them in their stories and art, passing on a trove of lore that draws on centuries of observation and speculation.

According to some traditions, when killer whale families tire of feeding for herring on the ocean’s surface, they dive to villages on the sea floor where they hang up their fins and entertain fishermen they’ve rescued from drowning. Eventually, the fishermen safely ride the killer whales back to their own homes on shore, where every year they hold potlatches, ceremonial gift-exchanges, to honour the shape-shifting creatures of the wild.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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